Restaurant Wines: Good, Bad and Ugly

Many people have written to me over the years expressing their dismay at the sorry state of restaurant wine. Usually they complain about high restaurant prices and ask how they can possibly be justified. They are seldom satisfied with my answer — restaurants charge high prices because people will pay them. Now, however, the critique has shifted to the wines themselves and what they reveal about wine in America.

What Does American Really Drink?

My recent post on “Olive Garden and the Future of American Wine” (see previous post) seemed to catch many wine enthusiasts by surprise. It reported data from Restaurant Wine magazine for the best-selling wines in American restaurants as determined by distributor “on-premises” shipments. This data, based on volumes shipped to all “on-premises” establishments in 2008, reveals that when America goes out it drinks a lot of White Zinfandel, Pinot Grigio and (gasp!) “Chablis.” Only one red wine made the top 20 list: Yellow Tail Shiraz.

The list changes only a little if we look at the data for wine brands (as opposed to specific wines):

  1. Kendall-Jackson
  2. Sutter Home
  3. Beringer Vineyards
  4. Franzia Winetaps
  5. Inglenook
  6. Yellow Tail
  7. Copper Ridge
  8. Cavit
  9. Woodbridge
  10. Salmon Creek (Bronco)

The complete list of the top 20 brands is dominated by America’s three largest wine companies with three brands each from Constellation Brands (Woodbridge, Taylor California Cellars and La Terre), Gallo (Copper Ridge, Barefoot Cellars and Ecco Domani) and The Wine Group (Franzia, Inglenook and Almaden). These three giants have large brand portfolios and strong distribution machines. They get their wines into every nook and cranny, both retail and on-premises sales. You can see the results virtually everywhere.

Only 4 of top 20 are international brands (Yellow Tail, Cavit, Ecco Domani and Mezzacorona). I think the fact that three of these four are Italian wine brands says something about the importance of Italian restaurants, including especially Olive Garden, in the American wine market.

Another Picture: The Wine & Spirit Rankings

The Restaurant Wine data give us one picture of the market, Wine & Spirits magazine’s annual restaurant report (April 2009 issue) provides a different (and perhaps more comforting) image. W&S asks a group of wine-focused restaurants to report which wines are on their lists — now how much they sell, but which ones are on offer. Since wines don’t stay on lists long if they don’t sell, this is an indirect measure of availability and popularity, although it isn’t the same as as volume rankings. Here is the W&S top 10 for 2008.

  1. Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards
  2. Cakebread Cellars
  3. Jordan Vineyard & Winery
  4. Silver Oak Wine Cellars
  5. Ferrari-Carano Winery
  6. Robert Mondavi Winery
  7. Veuve Cliquot
  8. Chateau Ste. Michelle
  9. Rombauer Vineyards
  10. Kendall-Jackson Vineyards

Sonoma-Cutrer is #1 on this list, yet it appeared on only about 14% of the surveyed wine lists (and, as noted above, there is no indication of how much was sold).  Only one winery appears in both top 10 lists – Kendall-Jackson. Only two other wineries appears in both top 20s – Beringer and Chateau Ste. Michelle. Gallo and The Wine Group are missing from the W&S top 20, although Constellation Brands makes the list through Robert Mondavi.

Looking over the data, I find myself especially impressed by the performance of Kendall-Jackson and Chateau Ste. Michelle. Both makers seem to combine wide distribution with a range of wines at attractive price points. It isn’t surprising that they rank high on both lists. Perhaps other producers will try to emulate K-J and CSM, especially given this tough economic climate.

Good, Bad or Ugly?

If the first list of restaurant wine brands depresses you, then ignore it and focus on the second list, where White Zin is much harder to find, but don’t get too smug. Remember that there are many markets for wine and that the US is no different from other countries in this regard. Compared to Germany, in fact, much more fine wine is sold here and proportionately less of the bulk product.

For myself, I see a glass half full. My experience working with college students who study wine is that the inexpensive wines serve a really useful function of introducing students to wine and diverting them from beverages that are more closely associated with binge drinking.

Although some White Zin drinkers suffer from arrested development and never move beyond it, I am persuaded that many do. Every staircase, no matter how high it reaches, needs a bottom step.  We have a broad first step in America — no surprise there — but I think it is a step up.

The French Have a Word For It

Old Europe is afraid of change, afraid to take chances.  That’s what President Bush is supposed to have said a few years ago in a conversation almost certainly not about wine.  Why the French, he said, they don’t even have a word for entrepreneur!

Innovator of the Year

But apparently they do.  Or at least that is the impression of the editors of Wine Enthusiast magazine. They recently announced the winners of their Wine Star 2008 awards and the Innovator of the Year is French, Jean-Charles Boisset, President of Boisset Family Estates.  The citation reads:

Tetra-Paks, aluminum and PET plastic bottles are all part of Boisset Family Estate’s drive to reduce their carbon footprint. The launch this November of Mommessin and Bouchard Aîné Beaujolais Nouveau in PET bottles has not only created a stir in the traditional wine industry, but has also continued a serious commitment. Jean-Charles Boisset, president of Boisset Family Estates, whose headquarters are in Nuits-Saint-Georges, Burgundy, France, launched Tetra-Paks of French Rabbit wine in 2005. Infinitely recyclable, the aluminum packs weigh less than half the weight of a conventional bottle. For his contribution to the environment through his company’s innovative use of packaging, Jean-Charles Boisset has been awarded Wine Enthusiast’s first Wine Star Award for Innovation.

Boisset Family Estates is a multinational wine company with roots in Burgundy and interests in Italy (Batasiolo) and California (several properties including DeLoach and Lyeth).  I follow Boisset because it seems to me that they are real entrepreneurs — moving in many directions at once, reflecting the many forces at work in wine world today.

The Wine Star 2008 award highlights sustainability-driven innovations, for example, but Boisset is also moving seriously toward biodynamic viticulture (at DeLoach, for example) and experimenting with new marketing models. It’s easy to be cynical about wine innovations, but it is pretty clear that new ideas can prevail in the wine market if they are very good ideas. And if the time is right. This is the lesson the screw cap’s success. Maybe more environmentally friendly “bottles” will be next.

The 70-70-70 Rule

Jean-Charles Boisset argues that using traditional glass containers with cork closures makes little sense — either environmentally or economically — for most of the wine sold today.  He observes that at least 70 percent of wine retails for $12-$10 or less (probably much  more than 70 percent, I suspect) and 70 percent is consumed within three hours of purchase.  Finally, 70 percent of the production cost of these low price wines is in the packaging, not the wine itself.

These wines are quotidian pleasures, purchased for quick consumption. Heavy, expensive “traditional” packaging makes little sense for 70-70-70 wines.  Producers, consumers and their environment would all likely benefit if these wines were packaged and sold in ways that reflect their real consumer product function, not a false elite identity.  Wine will have come of age, some argue, when it no longer needs the borrowed prestige of the heavy bottle or a faux-tradition label.

False Dichotomy

What I most appreciate about Boisset is the fact that it is difficult to put the company in a box.  Is it an Old World winery?  Well, yes of course, based on geography.  Is it New World?  Well, yes but not just because it owns properties in California. Its marketing innovations have a distinct New World flavor and its entrepreneurial spirit would make Adam Smith smile.

There is nothing particular Old World about quality and terroir or New World about innovation.  It’s all part of the blend and always has been — even in France.  No wonder they have a word for it.

[Note: In case you missed the irony of the opening paragraph, entrepreneur is a French term.]

Screwed not Corked

“The rumors of my death” Mark Twain wrote, “are exaggerated.”  I wonder if the same is true about wine bottles and the corks that seal them?


Fine wine comes in a bottle and is sealed with a cork – this long been a given of the world of wine, but things are changing very rapidly.  I wonder what the Wine Wall at your supermarket will look like in ten or fifteen years? Will there still be bottles and corks?  Or is the death of wine tradition over-stated.

Corks seem headed for the endangered species list for all but the most precious age-worthy wines.  Non-cork closures including screwcaps were nearly invisible just 10 years ago (with perhaps 1 percent of the bottled wine market), but this is changing quickly.  A report in Meininger’s Wine Business Monthly suggests that about 35 percent of wine bottles–  over 2.5 billion units — had non-cork closures in 2007, including about 90 percent of New Zealand’s wine production.

Screwcaps have long been associated with inexpensive wine, but this too is changing.  The August 2008 issue of Decanter magazine features an article titled “50 Reasons to Love Screwcaps.”  Ten wine critics including Steven Spurrier and Linda Murphy recommend wines for summer drinking and comment on both the products and their screw tops.  “The screwcap closure is one of the best things to have happened to wine in my lifetime,” according to Spurrier (the organizer of the famous Judgement of Paris tasting.

“Given the choice of the same wine with screwcap or a cork, I’d choose the screwcap every time,” writes Joanna Simon, The Sunday Times wine writer. It’s a pretty enthusiastic endorsement, especially coming from Decanter. Economics is behind the move away from cork. Screwcaps are not remarkably cheaper than cork, but they avoid the loss of good wine to cork taint, generally estimated to affect about three percent of cork-closed wines. That’s a cost that winemakers would like to avoid.  But it can get much worse than three percent in individual cases George Taber wrote about a much worse situation in his great book To Cork or Not to Cork. A shipment of tainted cork almost ruined the David Bruce winery some years ago and destroyed forever the reputation of its Chardonnay wines. It had to rebuild (successfully) as a Pinot Noir maker.

Big Bag, Big Box

Don’t throw away your corkscrews yet – bottle and cork won’t disappear over night.  But the screwcap is replacing cork and the familiar glass bottle, well it’s under attack, too. As much as 30 percent of the 20 billion liters of wine sold this year will come in a non-bottle package – a bag-in-box “cask,” TetraPak “juice box” or something else. Economics is driving this change, as well.

Bag-in-box casks are cheap and efficient, and so we have come to expect very inexpesive wines to be sold this way, in 3-liter or 5-liter containers.  Think Franzia and Peter Vella.  The bag-in-box system is even used in international wine trade, but on a bigger scale.  Bulk wine shipments increasingly arrive in 20-foot shipping containers that hold 24,000 liters of wine in a single seamless bladder called a Flexitank. Wow, that’s really bag in box!

But it’s not just the cost of the container itself that is at work here.  Bottles are heavy to ship and costly to recycle. Rising transportation costs and increasing concern about carbon footprint are pushing the industry to look very closely at alternative packaging systems.

A French company is leading the way on this front, and I am not sure whether to be surprised or not. France is generally associated with resistance to innovation and change – picture the rebel José Bové torching a McDonalds in protest of its encroachment on French life and cuisine. On the other hand the France is home to many of the most dynamic multinational corporations – including two of the world’s five largest wine companies – and the country has a huge interest in the wine business, given that it is still the largest producer. So perhaps it just makes sense that they are innovators in this field.

What’s French for Entrepreneur?

The producer I’m talking about is Boisset Family Estates, which makes fine wines such as Louis Bernard in France and DeLoach here in the United States. Boisset seems to be pushing the envelope, selling a €150 screwcapped Chambertin as well as affordable TetraPak French Rabbit wines.  I wrote about French Rabbit in my earlier post, Red, White and Green All Over.

I think we will be seeing more and more wine in non-traditional packages — screwcaps, casks, plastic bottles and so forth.  Cost, quality and environmental concerns are all pointing in the same direction for  wines that are sold for everyday consumption.  Hmmm.  Maybe the days of the wine cork really are numbered.  Great — my cork collection may finally be worth something!

What’s Red and White and Green All Over?

The answer, of course, is wine.

Perhaps the most interesting trend that I have observed in wine this year is the growth of green wine. By green I mean wine that is made and marketed with attention to the environment (although vinho verde from Portugal can claim to be a green wine on other counts).

What drew my attention to the green wine movement was not the existence of organic wines — they’ve been around for a long time — but the variety of ways that winemakers are embracing sustainability and the environment as an integral part of their work.

I uncovered three sustainability initiatives while doing fieldwork in Oregon, for example. The first was the Low Input Viticulture and Enology initiative, or LIVE for short. This is an a voluntary program with about 70 certified members that, according to the website, aims …

  • To see the vineyard as a whole system
  • To create and maintain a high level quality fruit production
  • To implement practices that reduce reliance on synthetic chemicals and fertilizers with the goal of protecting the farmer, the environment, and communities at large
  • To encourage responsible stewardship of the land, maintain natural fertility and ecosystem stability
  • To promote sustainable farming practices that maintain biological diversity in the whole farm

  • I haven’t studied the LIVE program closely, but my impression is that it is an attempt to both promote sustainable vineyard practices and, at the same time, take local control of the certification process. Why create an organization like LIVE — why not just go “organic” and be certified organic? I have talked to a number of winegrowers who hesitate to seek organic certification because of the considerable expense and also because the sort of sustainable viticulture they seek to practice goes beyond the avoidance of chemicals. Regional initiatives like LIVE allow groups of growers to define sustainability in a way that is compatible with local conditions and practices and to retain local control of the process.

    Some winemakers are going all the way when it comes to sustainability, which is what the biodynamic wine movement is all about. Biodynamic winemaking is based upon a set of agricultural theories that the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner proposed in the 1920s. The biodynamic idea is to treat the entire vineyard as a living organism and to adopt practices that promote the health of the entire structure — vines, soil, insects, and so forth. This reminds me of the famous Gaia Hypothesis that the whole earth is a living organism.

    Most biodynamic practices are uncontroversial, but the use of special organic field sprays draws special attention. The sprays are made by burying cow horns full of cow manure or ground quartz in the vineyard for six months and then spraying the estate with the resulting composted product in diluted form at specific times of the day and phases of the moon. The idea is to promote microbial health and the balanced growth of the vineyard. It sounds a little like voodoo viticulture, to me, but there are plenty of good winemakers who have adopted this practice so I am going to keep my skepticism in check for now.

    Several Oregon winemakers including Brick House and Cooper Mountain have gone or are going biodynamic. They join California producers including Frog’s Leap, DeLoach and Benzinger and a growing number of winemakers in Europe and around the world. I understand that many winemakers in Chile such as Emiliana Orgánico are adopting biodynamic practices, for example, both on philosophical grounds and, I suspect, in an attempt to differentiate their wines in the marketplace. (Click here to read Emiliana’s explanation of the principles of biodynamic viticulture). I haven’t tasted enough biodynamic wine to have an opinion about how the process affects the end product.

    The final example from Oregon is the Carlton Winemakers’ Studio, a facility that about a dozen smaller winemakers share. This operation was designed to meet recognized environmental standards from the group up. According to the website it was …

    The first winery registerd with the US Green Building Council, The Carlton Winemakers Studio was designed to be compliant with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, promoting a whole – building approach to sustainability by recognizing five key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality.

    Some of the most intriguing environmental building materials and techniques are the following:

    • Below foundation water capture and reuse
    • North roof water capture and reuse
    • Clear roofing materials
    • Daylighting, windows, doors, and hallway
    • Night air cooling
    • Coal byproduct (fly-ash)/concrete mix
    • Recycled mats, paint, office desk materials, roofing metal, carpet
    • Non-conventional material uses: sals-walls, curtains, shade
    • Reused: counter tops (SS & acid resistant composite), light, concrete, sinks
    • Dynamic flow air pocket walls
    • Earth berm / below grade walls for natural cooling

    The Winemakers Studio’s strategy suggests that green wine can be good wine, good economics and good for the environment.

    Sustainability is obviously important in winemaking, but it doesn’t end there. A growing number of wine brands, such as French Rabbit, are embracing sustainability in wine packaging and transport. Here’s how Boisset America, the French firm that makes and markets French Rabbit (and owns biodynamic DeLoach) got into the sustainable packaging business.

    Canada is a good market for wines, especially French wines, and the Liquor Control Board of Ontario is therefore a big buyer with lots of market power. As a state monopoly, the LCBO sets economic, social and environmental goals for its operations. They aim to minimize energy use and maximize recycling. LCBO challenged their wine suppliers to introduce new products to promote these goals and French Rabbit was one result. As Patrick Egan, brand manager for French Rabbit, notes

    “Our real immense success was with Liquor Control Board of Ontario. They inspired the creation of French Rabbit. As a goverment entity they were interested in challenging themselves and their suppliers to reduce packaging waste. They set an ambitious goal of eliminating 10 million kilograms of packaging waste per year. There were no other wines yet available in Tetra Paks when we presented French Rabbit, and they immediately embraced the concept. FR was the most successful launch of a new brand they’ve ever had, and spawned more than 75 other wines in Tetra Pak packages since French rabbit was launched there in July 2005. The success helped the LCBO reach their packaging reduction goal some 2 years ahead of schedule. Here in the US, there are really 3 primary brands [in Tetra Paks] so far, with more on their way.

    “Turns out, much of the world has been consuming wine from the Tetra Pak package for many years (you must have seen Tavernello on your travels to Italy). Our angle, our raison d’etre, for introducing a new wine in this package to North America has been the ecological benefits to the package. In the age of global warming and increasing interest in sustainability, our package has the benefits of the lowest carbon output per unit of wine sold when the full life cycle of the package is considered. Its lightweight and minimal packaging materials mean immense savings when compared to the glass bottle. So, as wineries make more and more efforts to combat global warming in the vineyards and in their energy consumption, we’ve gone the angle of actually transforming the package that wine is delivered in to consumers. Just as globalization increases choice for consumers, it also means more and more wine is shipped all over the world. Ours dramatically reduces the impact when wine is shipped, in addition to the savings generated when the package is produced and the package is recycled.”

    It seems to me that the wine industry is ahead of the curve with respect to sustainability and the environment. Wine is a product of nature, after all, and there are special reasons, aesthetic, philosophical and economic, why winemakers should wish to emphasize that connection. Green wine, I predict, is here to stay.

    The French Connection

    Watching Jonathan Nossiter’s film Mondovino gives the viewer the impression that the world of French wine is being overrun with Americans and modern American wine influences. Maybe that’s true, but if so it is only half the story. Herewith three stories of French wine and wine-makers in America inspired by recent conversations with former students (thanks to Jeremy, Devin and Patrick for your help).

    Story 1: Pinot Noir is a hot wine in the United States — the Sideways phenomenon continues for now. The best-selling Pinot Noir in American is called Redwood Creek. Have you seen it? Redwood Creek is a popularly priced Gallo brand; the label says that the wines are “inspired by the Frei Bros. 100 Year Old California Winemaking Tradition.”

    “Inspired” is a good word to use here because, although the brand reflects California tradition, the wine itself is from France. The label says “Product of France” and “Vin de Pays D’Oc.” So it doesn’t come from California’s Central Valley, as you might expect from a Gallo product, but France’s equivalent, the vast vineyards of Languedoc.

    I expect that many American supermarket shoppers who would never have had the confidence try to pronounce “vin de pays d’oc” much less spend money on some of its wines will be happily opening bottles of Redwood Creek Pinot Noir this Thanksgiving. Moral of the story: American consumers will buy French wine if it is presented in a familiar, understandable way, which in this case means as a branded varietal wine

    Story 2: I gave the faculty toast to our Phi Beta Kappa graduates at a luncheon last May and I was surprised to discover afterwards that the sparkling wine we drank came from New Mexico of all places. It was called Gruet and I was further surprised to find some of it on the neighborhood Metropolitan Market shelves.

    Gruet et Fils is a prominent French Champagne house, founded in 1952. Champagne is a good business, but a difficult one, too, for an entrepreneur. The business is highly regulated and expansion opportunities are strictly limited. Vineyard yields and locations are tightly controlled. If you want to make more Champagne to take advantage of market conditions, well basically you can’t. But you can make more Champane-like product, Methode Champenoise sparking wine, if you invest in vineyards outside the Champagne region. It won’t be Champagne, of course, and won’t earn Champagne’s price premium, but people will buy it if it’s very good.

    Members of the Gruet family were therefore vaguely searching for vineyard expansion opportunities when they were passing through the American Southwest in 1983. They ran into some fellow European winemakers who were trying to make a go of it in New Mexico and, inspired by their example, ended up planting vineyards at elevation 4300 feet near the town of Truth or Consequences, about 170 miles south of Albuquerque. The winery equipment was shipped over from France along with members of the Gruet family to make the wine and, in due course, a first vintage (1987) was released.

    Today Gruet produces more than 80,000 cases of American sparkling and still wines in New Mexico, which must make them the state’s largest producer. Prices run from about $13.50 for the basic sparkler up to nearly $50 for limited release wines — prices that are significantly lower than for equivalent Champagnes. Moral of the story: Americans will buy French-style wines from unexpected places if they are good, which the Gruet wines are, and a good value.

    Final story: Boisset, Vins et Spiriteux is a major French wine and spirits company. Founded in 1961 by Jean-Claude Boisset, it has evolved into a a top-five producer in France, exporting to more than 80 countries with investments in California (DeLoach Vineyards), Italy, Spain, Uruguay, South Africa and Canada. Their French brands include J. Moreau & Fils (Chablis), Bouchard Aine & Fils (Cote de Beaune) and Louis Bernard (Rhone Valley), all of which are sold in the United States.

    But Boisset America‘s big push at the moment is a wine called French Rabbit. Like Redwood Creek, it is wine from Languedoc. Unlike Redwood Creek, however, it doesn’t pretend to be inspired by anyone’s tradition, either French or Californian. It is designed to appeal to modern consumers who want to make wine part of an active, informal, sustainable lifestyle. That’s why it is packaged as you see it here, in lightweight eco-friendly octogonal-shaped one liter Tetra-Prisma containers (and 250-ml single-serving untis, too).

    (The wine on the left, Yellow Jersey (think Tour de France) is another Boisset America brand. It comes in a PET plastic bottle and will fit in your bicycle’s water bottle holder.)

    Is the world ready for wine that looks like this? A lot of my friends cling to tradition, unwilling even to give up corks for screw caps. Will they accept wine in what appears at first glance to be an orange juice carton? Apparently so — Boisset America sells more than 100,000 cases of French Rabbit in the United States and Canada and is now introducing the innovative brand into what must be the most traditional possible market, France itself. (Watch for an upcoming post about how French Rabbit and its unorthodox packaging was born).

    Moral of the story: French wines can succeed outside of France because of the creativity and entrepreneurship of French winemakers. Who knew?